The manufacturing of cars in Poland is mainly… a memory. A more or a less dear one. However, there are those who still dream about the Polish cars. Who knows, maybe it will happen again – there are many plans, even for mass-production, but so far, no results.
Cars in Poland – how did it all start?
The automotive industry in Poland is primarily associated with the PRL (Eng. “Polish People’s Republic”) period, when there was a relatively big amount of passenger and cargo cars manufactured in Poland.. Nevertheless, the Polish automotive industry history reached far further into the past.
Before the First World War, there weren’t many Polish cars on the roads – only around 400 in Warsaw. What is more, the road situation during the partition period was also complicated. Not only was the quality of roads different, but also the basic traffic laws.
Therefore, only during the interwar period, the number of cars on the Polish roads started to rise, though still slowly – bad roads, poor society and weakened economy definitely did not work in favour of the automotive industry development. However, not everybody saw it as a insurmountable obstacle.
S.K.A.F. and Polonia
Mass-production was a dream of Stefan Kozłowski and Antoni Frączkowski, who wanted to create the S.K.A.F. brand. In 1921, the constructed the first car – but there were eventually only 3 copies manufactured. Another prototype – Polonia by Eng. Mikołaj Karpowski – was created in 1924. But the quite modern construction of a 6-passenger car wasn’t enough. Due tot he lack of support, the project failed.
An interesting construction was also Ralf-Stetysz, which – according to estimates – could’ve been manufactured up to two hundred copies. The piece by Count Tyszkiewicz had all potential to become the first mass-produced Polish car. People were interested in it – moreover, Ralf-Stetysz was even equipped with a differential lock. So, the car was especially adjusted to be driven on the Polish roads of a questionable quality. What went wrong?
The Warsaw factory, and all the machinery and part of the already finished vehicles along with it, was consumed by fire. The financial means to rebuild the business weren’t found, and this is how the fire took away from Tyszkiewicz his spot in the Polish automotive industry history. The Polish cars had to be awaited for a while – but not for long.
Eventually, the first mass-produced Polish car was created in 1927 (works on the project began in 1922). It was the CWS T-1 model, constructed by Centralne Warsztaty Samochodowe (“Central Car Works”) in Warsaw. The vehicle, according to Tadeusz Tański’s design, was powered by a 3-cylinder combustion engine with a capacity of nearly 3 liters and the power of around 60 HP.
It could reach a little over 100 km/h and it burned 18 liters per 100 kilometers on average. The fuel – let us remind – had been available in the Warsaw petrol stations since only recently then. Before, it had been available in pharmacies. The production of CWS T-1 lasted four years. Collectively, there were around 800 copies manufactured in two versions – 500 passenger ones and 300 utility vehicles.
Therefore, it was the beginning of the mass-production, and at the same time proof that – just like all over the world – Poland did not lack ambitious constructors, interesting projects and commitment. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough, especially in the light of the approaching events, and the unfavourable economic situation they brought.
Polish cars popular during the PRL period
The Polish economy after the Second World War had to face enormous challenges. One of them was to resume manufacturing Polish cars. This is why there were experiments conducted in the Polish People’s Republic, due to which many truly interesting cars were created. They were manufactured primarily under the licenses from abroad, but there were also the truly Polish cars manufactured as well.
The Polski Fiat 125p
The Polski Fiat 125p – popularly the big Fiat – is an example of a car, whose production in Poland was started under the Italian license. The first copies of Fiat 125p were released in Warsaw at the end of 1967. The construction of the 125p model itself was based on the fusion of the 125 and the 1300/1500 models. There were three versions in offer – a sedan, a compact and… a pickup.
The last version consisted only of a fraction of the entire production, but Poles did not lack aspiration, which is supported by the fact, that there were ideas to… export the Fiat 125p in its pickup version to USA! Three copies originating from Warsaw were even tested there, however, the idea was eventually dropped.
The sedan version, equipped with four doors, was the most popular – no surprise, as the 125p model was then categorised in the then-D-segment. There two versions of the basic engine available, with a capacity of 1.3 or 1.5 liters, which were connected to the manual transmission (a 4- or later a 5-speed one). The drive was placed at the rear axle.
The car had been modified through the years. When in 1983, the Italian license expired, the car started to be manufactured under the FSO 125p name. It lasted until June 1991, when the last copy was manufactured. It was a real example of mass-production, as there were collectively nearly 1.5 million copies manufactured, 580.00 of which were exported.
The Fiat 126 (“The Little One” / “Toddler”)
The famous small Fiat cars were manufactured during 1973-2000 – longer than anywhere else. For nearly entire 70s, the car was manufactured also in Italy, and during 1973-1975 – in Austria. The Austrian version was slightly different – the source of its drive was the boxer engine.
This is not the end of the humouristic comparisons to the Porsche brand, which is famous for this type of engines. The Fiat 126 had its engine installed at the rear – and it was also air-cooled. Only later, the water-cooled engine version was introduced to the offer.
The car manufactured under the Italian license was manufactured by the Fabryka Samochodów Małolitrażowych (FSM) factory, and later by the Fiat Auto Poland. There were 3.3 million copies of the car manufactured in Poland alone – in Tychy and Bielsko-Biała. So, we can definitely refer to this as mass-production. What Poles valued in “The Little One” were the simple solutions – designed in such a way, so that almost anyone could repair it, using the most basic tools. The lowest price on the market and the easily accessible parts were also significant. The lack of the latter would complicate other, more advanced projects in the past.
The Fiat 126, and later the Polski Fiat 126p, were available in three versions. Aside from the most popular version – the 2-door one – there was the 3-door BIS version introduced, with a trunk also at the rear (the engine was still installed below) and the convertible, designed by the Bosmal Automotive Research and Development Institute. The production of the latter ended after only slightly over 500 copies had been manufactured. There weren’t many who’d be interested in Polish cars without roof, and even if there were any, they were usually found abroad (80% of the 126p Cabrio copies were exported).
The Polonez – the successor of the Fiat 125p – was manufactured during 1978-2002. In the first years – which was until 1991 – it was manufactured parallelly to the big Fiat, which it was supposed to replace. It was undoubtedly an interesting construction, when it comes to the Polish cars. Unlike in the case of the 125p model, the base bodywork of the Polonez was the 5-door hatchback. The Sedan – the Polonez Atu – was designed only in 1994 (the Fiat sedan, in turn, didn’t get its hatchback version).
The hatchback and the later manufactured sedan weren’t the only version of the Polonez. Since 1998, a delivery one was manufactured – the Polonez Truck. The history has also witnessed a Polonez equipped with 3 doors, a coupé, a cargo, and a compact. There was a racing model created.
In 1980, the team driving a Polonez took the 10th place in the Rally de Portugal, and gaining points in the World rally Championship. And although the Polonez doesn’t have many sports successes, there still have been a few really interesting variants.
One of them was the so-called Stratopolonez equipped with the Lancia Stratos frame and the V6 engine, which was also installed in the Ferrari Dino. Although the creation of the Stratopolonez was pretty much accidental, still, the Polish constructors managed to enhance the power unit, so that it could have reached 285 HP instead of the default 250. This Polonez needed only 5 second to accelerate to 100 km/h.
The Polonez “inherited” a lot of solutions after the Fiat 125p, which were modified for years. The power units and the brake system were improved, and the suspension was replaced. New generations of the Polonez debuted on the market – and this continued up to 2002, when further manufacturing and modification of the outdated project didn’t make any sense anymore. There were in total 1.06 million copies of this car manufactured in factories in Warsaw, Tychy, and even in Cairo, Bangkok and the Chinese Luoyang.
Although the famous Syrena was manufactured since 1957, its history reaches a few years back into the past. In 1953 the Fabryka Samochodów Osobowych (FSO) (Eng. “Passenger Car Factory”) received a commission to construct a small, practical car, and additionally, it should be based on the Warszawa M20 subassemblies as much as possible. This is how the Syrena was created – with a front-wheel drive, which was innovative for those times, when it comes to the Polish cars, and a two-stroke engine with a capacity of 0.69 liters. The car received also a 4-speed manual transmission.
Eventually, the Syrena with a power of 27 HP, and which could carry 4 passengers started to be manufactured. From the beginning, the mass-production was on the minds of the manufacturers – although, on the level of 10.000 copies yearly. The maximum speed got close to 100 km/h, and the fuel consumption oscillated between 7-8.5 liters.
The construction of the car wasn’t the best, and everybody was aware of that. The lack of parts, technology, materials and solutions was insurmountable, therefore, it was decided that the Syrena should be gradually modified. This is how the FSO Syrena 101, 102, 103, 104 and finally the Syrena 105, which ceased to be manufactured eventually in 1983, were created. There were also the utility versions – the delivery Bosto, the R-20 pickup, and also other interesting prototypes. The designed in the 60s Syrena Sport delights with its appearance until today.
The Polish cars did not have easy beginnings – and the Syrena is an example of this, although there were over half a million copies of this car manufactured in total. The Warszawa subassemblies base increased the weight of the car. Only after years, the cooling system was improved, however, the bodywork was never protected enough from the corrosion.
The idea of mass-producing cars in Poland started to exist right after the end of the Second World War. There was even a Polish-Italian agreement signed, pursuant to which the Fiat 1100 was allowed to be manufactured in Poland. However, this did not happen, and Poland still had to wait for the Italian source. Instead of the 1100 model license, Poland received a different project – the GAZ-M20 Pobieda.
This Soviet car was quite specific. An outdated construction was framed in a surprisingly modern bodywork. What’s significant is that it did not reach Poland under license, but on a basis of a declaration of cooperation – this is how things worked between the socialist countries. It was a detail which later allowed Poles to independently develop the construction of the car.
The FSO Warszawa – when it comes to the post-war cars – was the first model, which was mass-produced. The production lasted from 1951 until 1973. The car – depending on its version – would fit 5 or 6 people, and it was powered by a 4-cylinder gasoline engine with a capacity of 2.1 liters, which was connected to a 3-speed transmission (a 4-speed one was introduced only at the end of the production). The drive was placed at the rear axle.
The Warszawa was offered in the fastback, sedan, compact and pickup versions, and a little over 250.000 copies were manufactured. The car was praised for the travel comfort, and sustainable engines – thanks to the simple construction, they could’ve been easily used for years. Unfortunately, this cannot be said about other elements of the Warszawa. The corrosion, impractical and outdated bodyworks, and the dissonance were the issues – with its size and the principles, the car aspirated to belong to the medium and the upper class, which definitely couldn’t have been reached with its capabilities.
Cars manufactured in Poland – an overview
Despite the passage of time, all Poles still remember about the small and the big Fiat and the Polonez cars. Besides, all of them – occasionally, though – can be still seen on the Polish roads. The Warszawa and the Syrena cars since some time already have been resting in the motor museums, where they belong to now. But what did the less popular Polish cars look like?
During 1958-1994 – so for quite a long time – a specific delivery car was manufactured known as the Nysa (named by the place, where the factory was located). It featured different typed of the bodywork – both as a cargo van and a microbus, as well as a refrigerated car and an ambulance. In this case, one cannot consider it to be mass-produced on a very large scale, although, as for the Polish cars, the scale wasn’t small at all. The total of over 380.000 of Nysa cars were manufactured, which were used not only in Poland, but also they were exported abroad.
The Nysa was based partially on the Żuk – the Nysa differed from it e.g. by its more rounded bodywork. It was also considered more comfortable for the passengers… although you should ask those who had the pleasure of taking a ride in it – not necessarily voluntarily. The blue Militia Nysa cars is a characteristic, although infamous element of the Polish automotive industry history.
The Polish Fiat 508 Balilla
Interesting Polish cars – perhaps far from the contemporarily understood mass-production – were also created in the interwar period. The Polish Fiat 508 Balilla is one of them, which was an off-road car, or perhaps an SUV car, based on the 508 Junak model. The car was destined to be used by the Polish Army. Therefore, it feature typically military facilities e.g. the front windscreen with the roll-down option, which allowed firing. Inside, there were also weapon holders, and in some cases even weaponry itself – machine guns.
The vehicle, unfortunately, was not equipped with the four-wheel drive, but thanks to the off-road tires and the differential lock, it could do pretty well on the off-road. Some copies of the Balilla were even equipped with a reducer.
Polish cars weren’t very popular abroad – some weren’t recognised even in Poland. Such was the case of the Wilk, a brand which is rarely remembered. The Wilk sale started in 1995. It barely exceeded 1000 copies, so in this case, it definitely wasn’t a mass-produced car. No surprise, as In Poland in the 90s, there were already many popular constructions of the Western brands.
Meanwhile, the Wilk had the Ukrainian LuAZ 1302 model as its prototype. Slightly modified and modernised, it was supposed to be to be destined for a vast range of users, from the youth, to the forest-rangers and the police. The target group was very wide, but the thing is… nobody was interested in looking to the future. For commuting to work, definitely other cars would be more suitable, and when it comes to the appearance, the Wilk left a lot to be desired. No miracle happened, and the Wilk shared the same fate as other projects, whose authors had mixed the epochs.
The French had the Vespa 400 based on the Piaggio project, the Germans had the Isetta – also manufactured under the Italian license. The Poles didn’t want to be worse – and they also had their own microcar. It was the manufactured during 1957-1960 in Mielec Mikrus MR-300. The 302.5-centimeters long car had the potential to be an alternative for the motorcycle. The source of power of the Mikrus was the R2 engine with a capacity of 0.3 liters. It generated 14.5 HP. And it weighted a little less than 500 kg.
It seemed that the Mikrus was only one step away from a huge success, as there was massive interest in purchasing it. So what was the obstacle and why hardly any Pole remembers about such an interesting project of this small car? The low price was supposed to be the bargaining chip and an argument for Poles to use this particular vehicle as a means of transport. Unfortunately, the costs of manufacturing couldn’t have been decreased and the Mikrus was never actually manufactured.
CWS T-1, CWS T-4, CWS T-8
The CWS T-1 went down in history as the first mass-produced Polish car – you can find more information about above, in the section devoted to the Polish automotive industry history. It’s good to know that it also had “brothers” – the T-4 and T-8 models – however, neither of them eventually didn’t make it to he production.
A characteristic element of the T-8 model was an 8-cylinder engine with a capacity of 3 liters. It was a water-cooled, straight, flathead engine. It allowed reaching the power of 80-100 HP. The whole car1.– aside from the engine – didn’t differ much from the T-1 model. The CWS T-4 (known also as the T-2) was smaller and lighter – mounted on a Škoda bodywork, which it shared with the T01 prototype. “Half” of the T-8 engine was used to power this model. The power was limited in this case to 24 HP. Both cars aroused interest, but they remained in the prorject phase.
Cree SAM (SAM RE-Volt)
The capabilities do not always pair with the aspirations – and the same applied to the innovation and usefulness. A proof for this is the Cree SAM, which practically had no chances to make it to the mass-production. Either way, it is worth mentioning a Polish contribution in the world of the electric vehicles. Yes, vehicles – because although it was a car, it had three wheels, and to drive it, the category A driving license – for motorcycles –was required.
The Cree SAM was initially manufactured in Switzerland, later – since 2009 – in Pruszków, Poland. It was equipped with a 20-HP electric engine and it allowed driving for 50-100 kilometers per one battery charge. A peculiar construction, a not really useful solution and a hard suspension did not win him many enthusiasts. A mass-production of 5 thousand copies per year was planned, but the peculiar – even for the experimental Polish cars – invention was never heard of again.
Although since several years, the cars with logo have stopped being sold, the Daewoo brand is still remembered by many people. No surprise – its cars for some time were one of the biggest elements of the Polish automotive landscape. It all started in South Korean, from the Saehan Motors. The company was taken over by Daewoo Group in 1982, and this is how it debuted. Primarily, Daewoo Motors functioned on the domestic market, and with it expanded its business area mainly into Europe. What connects the company with Poland?
During 1996-2004, Daewoo held 100% of the FSO shares, the Polonez manufacturer. In Warsaw, the Daewoo Lanos, the Matiz, the Nubira and the Leganza were manufactured, in Lublin – the Daewoo Nexia. These weren’t Polish cars in 100%, but the place of their mass-production was i.a. Poland. At the turn of the century, Daewoo Motors was facing a serious crisis, and eventually in 2001 it was taken over by General Motors. This is how the gradual elimination of the Daewoo brand from other markets started. It was replaced with the Chevrolet cars, although certain models for some time differed only with the logo.
Factories manufacturing Polish cars
The Polish automotive industry history is not only the more or less known car models – both those which were mass-produced, as well as the ones which eventually didn’t make it there. It is also the places of their creation and manufacturing.
- The Fabryka Samochodów Osobowych (Eng. “Passenger Car Factory”) located in one of the Warsaw districts, Żerań, operated until 2011, when the last car was manufactured. It was the Chevrolet Avero. Ten years later, the area on which the former factories were located was purchased by a developer, who plans to build a housing complex. The developer ensures that it would refer in a way to the history of the place the housing estate is going to be built.
- The Państwowe Zakłady Inżynierii (PZInż) (Eng. “National Engineering Works”) existed during 1928-1939. It was a state-owned company based in Warsaw. It is there where the cars and motorcycles were created – the CWS and the Sokół. In PZInż, there was also the Fiat 508 manufactured. The factories did not survive the Second World War. They were bombed, looted and completely destroyed by Germans.
- The Centralne Warsztaty Samochodowe (CWS) (Eng. “Central Car Works”) existed even earlier – from 1918 until 1928. They were the base for the Państwowa Wytwórnia Samochodów (Eng. National Car Factory), and then the entire Państwowe Zakłady Inżynierii. It dealt with vehicle servicing and car manufacturing for the army, even tanks were manufactured there. Later – already under the name of PZInż – the production was reduced to cars and motorcycles.
- The Towarzystwo Budowy Samochodów AS (Eng. the AS Car Manufacturing Company) dealt with passenger and cargo cars manufacturing since 1924. Until 1932, the production took place in Warsaw, however, a fire happened. The saved remains were moved to the factories in Miedzeszyn (at that time it wasn’t part of the capital city). Until 1939, when the business ultimately ceased to exist, around 150 copies of the AS brand cars were manufactured.
This place played an important role many years ago – and the Polish cars which were manufactured there, went down the history well. Nowadays, it’s difficult to discuss any major Polish brands manufacturing passenger cars, which does not mean that there are no dynamically working car factories in Poland.
There are the Fiat factories in Tychy and Bielsko-Biała, the Volkswagen factories in Poznań and Września, and the Opel factories in Gliwice and Tychy, just to mention a few. Aside from these, there are also trucks, delivery cars, and even electric cars manufactured in Poland.
The future of Polish cars
There are many people who still dream of Polish cars. The ones which would be available in countries all over the world. The ones which would compete with the foreign brands – and not due to the lower price, but due to the better quality and more modern solutions. The problem is that entering the market, which is dominated by the gigantic brands with over 100 years of experience, would surely be not easy.
The domestic constructors – although they do not lack ambition, for sure – do realise that. The same goes for the foreign brands. All the popular car brands have decades of years of experience, and even if it’s not first-hand, it is supported by the experience of the mother-brand. If new players appear, they do not enter the mainstream, rather – the niche one. And this might be the place where chances could be found, when it comes to the Polish cars manufacturing.
Arrinera, Izera – what’s next?
For some time, hopes were pinned on Arrinera, which presented a project of a Polish supercar. The works were quite advanced, although quite controversial. Eventually, all went in vain. Due to the financial shortages, Hussarya did not make it to the production. It was one of the most famous automotive projects in the recent years – when it comes to Poland, of course.
Another – equally famous, due to the governmental support – is a project of a Polish electric car, which ElectroMobility Poland is responsible for. Under the brand name Izera electric car are supposed to be produced, which there’s no much information about so far. There are plenty of announcements – but no concrete thing yet. What it will actually be – time will tell. The electric cars are the future. However, whether there will be electric cars from Poland, that’s a different story.
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